September 11 Digital Archive

Guo Gan Yan


Guo Gan Yan



Media Type


Chinatown Interview: Interviewee

Guo Gan Yan

Chinatown Interview: Interviewer

Florence Ng

Chinatown Interview: Date


Chinatown Interview: Language


Chinatown Interview: Occupation


Chinatown Interview: Interview (en)

Q: Mr. Yan, please tell us when is your birthday and your life in China?

Yan: I was born on March 18th, 1950 in Guangzhou, China.

Q: How was your life in Guangzhou?

Yan: I lived there for a few decades. I lived through the Cultural Revolution, a very difficult period. However, we were optimistic and happy. We had many hobbies. We liked sports, entertainment, and played various musical instruments.

Q: How was the environment of your home town? How many brothers and sisters do you have?

Yan: My father was a sailor when I wan born. He sailed in passenger ships mainly between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Later, he sold small stationery.

Q: How was the living environment?

Yan: Guangzhou had many people but few lands. Thus, living spaces were scarce and expensive. We had a family of six. Our parents and four brothers and sisters lived in a 20 sq. meter space. To increase space, we built an attic. The space was sufficient.

Q: How was your study?

Yan: I studied in a nearby school from elementary to high school because Guangzhou’s schools adopted a zoning system.

Q: What did you like to do when you were young?

Yan: I was very active. During my elementary studies, I loved playing Ping pong balls and the other sports. In my high school years, I played basketball, swimming, and ice-skating. I also played Chinese and Western musical instruments.

Q: China has experienced many political movements, such as the Cultural Revolution. How did they affect your studies?

Yan: I ran into Cultural Revolution when I was in the 2nd year of my intermediate school and we had to stop studying. We were seriously affected. I only studied intermediate school for less than 2 years. All schools throughout the nations stop schooling. After the Cultural Revolution, school returned to normal, we had to graduate from high school. We had to leave because the younger students were moving up. Hence, I actually finished one year of intermediate school. Later on, I compensated my study at the workplace. Ha! Ha!

Q: What did you do during Cultural Revolution?

Yan: When school stopped, we scheduled ourselves a lot of activities: sports, swimming, ice-skating, fishing, and playing cultural musical instruments and western instruments.

Q: Did you have a hard time?

Yan: Not hard time at all. I was young and relatively active. We played happily.

Q: How was your family affected by political unrest?

Yan: Cultural Revolution eliminated businessmen and peddlers. My father lost his stationery stores. We lived by renting out public phone, at a few cents per minute.

Q: Your father rented out phone lines. What did your mother do?

Yan: My mother helped in housework and in selling stationery.

Q: What did your siblings do?

Yan: My brothers and sisters worked in garment and mechanics industries in Guangzhou city.

Q: Describe your life in the factory or being “sent down” to the village.

Yan: I wasn’t sent down to the village, because my elder brother was sent to the village in Hainan Island. My parents were too old and sick and I would have to stay to take care of them. Hence, I was assigned a job in a factory.

Q: When was that?

Yan: I was assigned to a factory in 1969.

Q: What did you do in the factory?

Yan: I repaired machines. Later on, I was responsible for planning entertainment events and sports, contests and night concerts.

Q: What factory was that?

Yan: That was called Guangzhou Cement Factory. Now it is called Guangzhou Cement Company Limited.

Q: Mr. Yan, you had to work during day time and organized entertainment activities at night time. How did you arrange your schedule?

Yan: At first, I used the leisure time after working hour to swim and ice-skate. Then we formally established our own propaganda teams as a political mission. We then took business leave to rehearse, perform and participate in contests. Even though we had privileges to take leave, we worked in one of the 3-shifts in the factory. Sometimes we rehearsed in the morning and worked on night shift. We continue to work as much as we could.

Q: What kind of views your close friends and relatives hold when they learnt about you organizing events?

Yan: My father was easy going. He let us express our wishes freely. He did not oppose us playing musical instruments. I became a para-professional later on. I organized activities. I assumed the roles of a coach, team member, team leader and back stage coordinator.

Q: How long did you work in the cement factory?

Yan: I worked for almost 30 years, until I came to the United States. It should be exactly 29 years.

Q: In these 29 years, you had to take care of both working and organizing social activities?

Yan: In the latter year of my job, I was solely responsible for entertainment and sport. I did it at any time of the day, day or night. I was involved in festivals, parties, inter-factory contests, employee Lunar festivals, and for retirees, family members and kids. We had prize games and simple contests.

Q: Of the many activities that you organized, did you have any memorable moment?

Yan: From my experience, I was able to organize games according to age characteristics of the participants. If elderly could not move freely, they could not play the games that young people played. At the same time, we had to show respect and not bored them. The ideal games should be simple contests with appropriate prizes.

For ladies who dressed up and wore high heels, they could not play ‘musical chair’, nor could they play ‘bursting the balloons’. They should not play games that they get stepped on or could cause tripping. The floors could not be slippery. The ideal games would be guessing riddles and idioms.

Q: What kind of games did you organize?

Yan: If workers played outdoor, but did not have props yet wanted to play, I took a nylon rope and cut them into a few one-meter pieces. Then, I arranged them into 3 to 4 person teams. The team who tied the longest rope would win. The game was called ‘long strings of love’. It was a simple game.

Some games were more complicated and were called ‘walking like a king crab, blocking all the way’. The game was interesting and the name carried moral meanings. I would specify before the game that ‘the contestants will be awarded for blocking the ways at the game tonight. But in real life, we should be modest. The contestants were divided into two teams and were assigned to the two ends of the place. In the middle was a destined line. Each group of 3 to 4 teammates were lined up and tied on the outer ankles by rope and little bamboos. The whistle blew and every one walked sideway towards the middle as fast as possible. People would win if they walk like a crab. At the game that night, they could walk like a crab, but in daily life, they should be modest. Since this happened, I reminded them the morals of the games.

Q: Your work provided relaxation to people’s stressful lives. Did it spice up the lives of the grass root workers?

Yan: Workers performing boring tasks would repeat the same action over and over again. On the other hand, our bodies need more exercise and stretch our limbs from time to time to maintain a healthy life. If a group of muscles was overused, it will hurt and result in occupational disease. I held sport activities to make our workers healthy, to minimize occupational disease, and to provide leisure and healthy hobbies for workers. Activities such as fishing team and non-Olympic games encouraged people to exercise and be happy. If you organize appropriate contests, people who do not exercise enough would participate.

Q: You organize a lot of games. Do you remember some games that gave you the deepest sense of achievement?

Yan: Nan Fang Daily in Guangzhou reported my company’s events. Departments of the city government would invite me to chair and organize [events]. They thought my activities were more lively and catered to all age groups, such as evening parties for all seasonal occasions, Lunar festival parties for children, “Respect the elderly” festival for retirees, social dance for employees, karaoke contest and simple events such as flower arrangement contest or even fashion contest for female workers. Sport contests were often held, occasionally we had non-Olympic games. The employees were pleased with it. The employees have different likings and love to have assorted choices, many workers were very satisfied.

Once there was a worker who had not joined our activities for decades, because the tickets were limited and they were all taken away by leaders from the management, pioneer workers, superviors and model workers. No tickets were left to the workers. Hence I broke the tradition, on May 1st International Labor Day, no tickets were issued and all the worker could join in.

A “South vs. North contest” was held in the hall, with singing. The success of the party relied on interaction between those performed on stage and the audience below the stage. The audience below the stage was usually not so keen, but whenever I organized the “South vs. North contests” , audience from both sides could participate. At the same [I would announce] that if the audience from the northern gate won, the prizes for those both on and below the stage would be much more. That helped make the audience get more involved and promote interaction between them. The cheerleaders of course put in a great deal of effort- this is just some of my experiences.

Q: You led a colorful life in China. Why did you come to the United States originally?

Yan: It was mainly due to the fact that my brother was in the United States. He applied for us 11 years ago. I did not want to come because I was passionate about my job there and I had assorted hobbies. Later on, it would be better for my children’s education. My friends also persuaded us to come, for the sake of my children’s education.

Q: Before you came, what was your impression of New York Chinatown?

Yan: I had heard about it. I already knew coming to the States was not to enjoy a luxurious life, life could be a bit boring . [It was because] I had this thinking initially and also because I don’t know English, only a few words.

Before I came to the United States, some people already warned me that Chinatown was very dirty. I witnessed it indeed after I came.

Q: When did you come to the United States?

Yan: In 1999.

Q: Where did you live when you came here?

Yan: I have been living in Brooklyn ever since. I worked for a restaurant.

Q: What kind of restaurant was that?

Yan: A restaurant in Chinatown.

I never worked in the catering business before and was referred by others. Since I don’t know English, I work in Chinatown.

Q: What did you do initially?

Yan: I was a busboy.

Q: Was United States the same as what you expected?

Yan: I knew I had to work hard [in the United States]. I did not want to come because I’m old, and am not able to work hard because I’m stamina is limited. The biggest barrier was not knowing English. Being here is like living in another society, [I’m] not accustomed to many things because of the difference in skin color. Had to find jobs that can do without English.

Q: How big was the restaurant?

Yan: It was a banquet restaurant which served dim sum and meals.

Q: How long you worked?

Yan: For almost 4 years.

Q: What was your salary?

Yan: It was hard to compare. If we earned and used money in the same place, the standard of living would be the same in different places. The basic salary plus tips varied each month. The more banquet orders, the more the tips. Tips earned during the dim sum shift were less. [It happened that I earned] less than $1000 a month, and even $800. On average, $1200.

Q: Was the salary enough? Did your wife need to help out?

Yan: Definitely. She also worked in a restaurant.

Q: Was your restaurant affected by 9/11?

Yan: The economy after 9/11 was bad. [The restaurant] was closed for a while, then reopened for a while, then closed for a while, in the end it shut down.

Q: When it was closed, did the employer give you any severance pay? How did the company treat its workers?

Yan: No severance payment. [Our] wages were still owed. Ha! Ha!

Q: After it was closed, the employers fled. What happened to the wages of so many people?

Yan: The workers were scattered everywhere, they were owed a few months worth of salary.

Q: When you worked in the United States and were mistreated by Chinese employers. How did you feel?

Yan: At the time, it would be nice to meet people from my old culture in a different land. So I was deeply [hurt] when I ran into a heartless employer in a foreign land. In fact, in US, the Chinese community is very complicated.

Q: Protests were staged at the New Silver Palace restaurant. Did you participate in the protest to fight for your benefits?

Yan: We are new immigrants, we did not know the history of this place. I just wanted to look for a job and live a stable life. Ever since 9/11, it was very difficult to find a job.

Q: Later on, did you try looking for jobs elsewhere?

Yan: People would ask you where you worked before, once they heard it they would ask you to leave a phone number, but there’s [always] no news. A lot of people are unemployed these days . Job hunting is hard, it depends on your age. When they looked at me and asked you to put down the phone number…Unable to master basic English, not knowing a few phrases of simple English, [it was] impossible to find a job.

Q: When comparing before and after 9/11, was it harder to find a job[after 9/11]?

Yan: Definitely. Many restaurants and garment factories [closed down]. A lot of people were unemployed. Now my wife is the one has a job.

Q: Where does your wife work?

Yan: In a restaurant, in Brooklyn.

Q: What were you doing when 9/11 happened?

Yan: When 9/11 happened, I had a day off and rested at home. We didn’t turn on the television, since we don’t know English. It was from long distance phone calls from Hong Kong and Guangzhou which [they] told us not to go out because New York was being attacked, they watached the planes crash. Originally, I planned to take pictures on that day but rescheduled it to Wednesday, September 12th. So I stayed home. After the phone call, I took out my camera and wanted to take photos, but the traffic was already dead. Because of my passion in photography, out of a photographer’s instinct I would capture the breaking [news] events [with my lenses], but I didn’t realize the incident was so serious.

Q: When 9/11 happened, did the restaurants stay open?

Yan: [They were] shut right away, but not closed down, after a while [they] reopened. When the restaurant shut, I waited for a few months for it to reopen, no income for those few months.

Q: Were there any community groups [offering] such as disaster assistance fund?

Yan: We did not know English, applied very late. But did apply, such as [benefits from] Red Cross, Safe Horizon. But that was the second year after the events, many months later.

Q: Was it because [you] did not know that application were available or were there other reasons?

Yan: No, I learnt it from other co-workers.

Q: How much was the subsidy?

Yan: Safe Horizon [offered] $2500, and there was Red Cross and Food Stamp.

Q: Could you make it through?

Yan: The restaurant re-opened but the business was sluggish ever since. Later, I got some subsidies, last year I received subsidies to learn English, applying through Safe Horizon.

Q: Did you expect the economy could be so bad?

Yan: It was beyond my expectation. New York was a tourist city, without tourists, the restaurant industry would collapse and many would close down.

Q: When 9/11 happened to the United States, has it changed your impression of the United States? What kind of revelations do you have?

Yan: It is beyond my imagination to see such a huge terrorism attack happened within the United States and the degree of terror of the terrorism event. It was out of my mind, unthinkable.

Q: Do you still love the United States, the country?

Yan: United States itself is very democratic, she may have accumulate some resentment from the Arabic world for favoring one side and make the other side of the Arabic world anger. I don’t know much about politics.

Q: After all these years in the United State, do you consider the United States as your home?

Yan: My whole family emigrated to the United States, United States is my home.

Q: After your arrival, what was your first impression of Chinatown?

Yan: When I first arrived in New York. Two main features of my impress - good air quality and orderly traffic, better than that in mainland China.

Q: What is your impression of the Chinese community?

Yan: Chinese people are faced with serious language barrier in the United States, [at least] in the hearts of local Americans. Used to hear that [the Chinese are] turning into third class citizens in United States, I have mixed feelings [on that] after I came. Part of the big reason is that others see you as third class citizens since you are not doing good enough [to attain] social moral, professional ethics. For example, when boarding the subway, the Americans would [let others] off first then get on, very polite. But when it comes to some Chinese people, they swarmed in that outrages the Americans and leaves an impression that the Chinese are impolite. Besides, spitting on the ground, littering, ignoring the traffic signal are common phenomenon. Before I emigrated, people already say “Chinatown is the dirtiest”, this is a problem with our cultural standard. It affects civil virtue and professional ethics.

Q: You organized a lot of activities before, did you utilize your expertise in the United States?

Yan: We don’t know English. I am not familiar [with the country]. I don’t get to know a handful of people, no clue [as in how to start].

Q: You led a hard life here. What do you think is the difference of quality of living here?

Yan: It is hard to judge the quality of living. [You] enjoy life in China with [whatever that is available to you] , in here, [you can] enjoy [whatever is available to you here]. But since we don’t know English, we cannot enter the mainstream society, no enjoyment, no night life. But Americans [do have it] - the night scene at 42nd Street, Soho area is very lively. Because our and theirs living habits are different, [and we] don’t know English, no night life. Also, we finish work late, unlike the 8-hour shift system in China- [be it] 9am to 5pm or 8am to 4pm. In China, usually [we] have dinner at 6pm, then karaoke after the meal, the cultural life [there] is lot more lively.

Q: As you see, what is the main entertainment [here for the Chinese]?

Yan: The best entertainment is watching video tapes, renting video tapes is the most popular entertainment.

Q: Without exercises, what kind of effects it will have on physical and mental health?

Yan: Working for more than ten hours then head home to watch video tapes is not so good. Life is all about moving, with enough exercises it will benefit the body and helps with work [efficiency]. It is because at work, [we often] repeat a certain movement. Sports mean movement for all of the body, balancing all the bones and exercises muscles. [It] Lowers the chance of occupational ailments such as erosion of waist muscles [and] back aches.

Q: You worked in the restaurant business before. What are the common occupational ailments there?

Yan: That area is not my expertise, but I have heard that in restaurants, [workers] suffer mostly from waist and leg pains. Working more 10 hours [really] hurt the feet of the waiters. Inactivity can lead to the so called waist and leg pains.

Q: Mr. Yan, you came with your wife and daughter. How did you get to know your wife?

Yan: Referred by someone.

Q: What was her occupation?

Yan: At that time, she was a “Zhi Qing”, sent down to the country. An educated youth who spent time in rural village.

Q: Did she work in the factory or other organization?

Yan: Even after the referral by others, she still had to work in the countryside at the time. She returned to the city later and worked in the factory.

Q: How long were you married?

Yan: We were married for 22 years.

Q: When you told your wife that you were coming to the United States, how did she feel? Was she willing to come?

Yan: She was not willing to come at all.

Q: How did you convince her?

Yan: I said that the child could have a better education. My big brother already filed the application for us. My parents [already] passed away, [with] no brothers in Guangzhou. My sister emigrated together [with us], so the siblings all go to the United States together.

Q: What does your older brother do in the United States?

Yan: My older brother works in the restaurant industry.

Yan: Yes.

Q: Did he own his business, or …..?

Yan: He works [as an employee].

Q: Do you have other job besides? Or your brother found a job for you?

Yan: My brother referred me to the job. When there was a vacancy, I was asked to work there.

Q: How old is your daughter?

Yan: She is 19 years old.

Q: Is your daughter studying?

Yan: She is in high school.

Q: How is her education environment? She grows up in a foreign environment. Does she know Chinese?

Yan: Yes, she writes and reads Chinese. I asked her to practice more writing Chinese at home and use English more often to communicate with American students outside home, but she likes to stick with Chineses [here].

Q: Where is she studying?

Yan: She [is studying] in Brooklyn. According to the zoning system, the arrangement is called bilingual education, I am not so clear about this. At the beginning, she did not understand certain lessons and the teacher went on and did not care whether she understand or not. As time went on, it actually improved the standard of her English.

Q: Do you hope that your child retain her Chinese tradition and at the same time wish her enter the mainstream. How do you manage that, any challenges are faced with?

Yan: I want her to communicate more often with American students and raise her English standard. But she likes to stay with Chinese students. The school environment encourages desegregation. People gathered by groups. Chinese stayed with Chinese and did not mingle with western students.

Q: Which school is your daughter studying at?

Yan: On 86th Street further away from Avenue U. It should be Lafayette High School.

Q: Is that the school which had violence incidents recently?

Yan: Probably the one.

Q: Are you worried?

Yan: So I asked her to watch out, leave right away after school, don’t walk alone, and don’t stay for long after school. Harmony is foremost important, if any argument occurs, just don’t bother with trivial matters. On top of that, she is pretty quiet, not very sociable.

Q: What is your expectation of her?

Yan: I don’t have any expectation of her. She has her own thoughts. She hopes to be an artist, fashion design. I let her decide according to her wishes.

Q: A lot of Chinese want their children to become doctors or lawyers. You give her a lot of freedom?

Yan: She decides and I give her advice.

I will not force my view unto her. Nothing should be forced, the more [you] force them, the more the children will rebel against [you]. For example, a friend of mine who used to learn musical instruments with me is now threatening his son to play violin with a stick if he doesn’t like to play certain instruments. The son does not learn it heartily, [whenever] the stick is there, he can play the whole songm but when his wife teaches the kid, he only played a small section. [The more] the force is, it will only drive him to lie to his parents.

Q: The restaurant closed down and owed you wages. Have you ever thought of claiming back the unpaid wages?

Yan: We came here and are strangers here. If [we are] being cheated, we may as well let it be. Since a lot of people say so, it is impossible to get it back. We are not the first case, we heard of it happened from time to time. Once the bosses shut down [restaurant] and went bankrupt, even if there were auctions, the priority of loan returns would go to the big debtors first. After a long while, it won’t even reach the workers.

Q: How many workers were there in the restaurant?

Yan: I did not count, but it should be less than a hundred, with 70 to 80. The dinning area has several dozen people. There were also kitchen, dim sum and dish washing departments.

Q: After 9/11, you went through unemployment when the restaurant closed down. Do you think the government or grass root organizations had provided enough help to new immigrants?

Yan: The grass root organizations had helped 9/11 victims tremendously with donations. However, we were not proficient in English and we did not understand a lot. We can only hearsay and apply. For some [of the benefits] we have no clue where to start from. I know I may be eligible for food stamp. I just don’t know where to apply.

Q: Have you got your green card?

Yan: We received our green cards as soon as we arrived in the United State.

Q: [You] can travel in and out of the United State. Have you ever gone back to China [to visit]?

Yan: Yes, I went back before.

Q: When you returned to China, how did your friends and relatives see you? “Oh, you went to the United States!”?

Yan: In China, the Chinese nowadays are more familiar with the United States. Many had emigrated to United States and returned. Mainland Chinese people know bits and pieces of the United States, just as I knew about the United States by watching video tapes.

Q: Before, it was difficult to come to the United States. Once you arrive in the United States, they think perhaps you have won the lotto, do they envy you?

Yan: Some of them. Some people did not want to come even if they were invited. These are the people who are already wealthy. Some people would like to come if they have the chance. Both kinds of people exist.

Q: In retrospect, do you think you’ve made a right choice to come, or are you regretting it?

Yan: I never regret anything I did, such as my [choice of] profession. The simplest example would be traveling. Some people say they regret traveling to some place because it was not fun. I did not feel that way. I think traveling itself is an enjoyment, don’t moan about it being not fun. The act itself benefits your mind and body. If we travel with this intention, [there will be] not regret.

Q: What is your expectation of the future of your America life?

Yan: I hope [I can] find a good job but the main [problem] is I don’t know English.

Q: How is you English class?

Yan: I have, well , finished the course. But we have no basic training [in the first place] and therefore, did not quite get it. I only know how to say greetings and asking for prices when shopping.

Q: Does it help at all?

Yan: Somewhat.

Q: Do you have anything to add?

Yan: No.

Q: Thank you!

Yan: Thank you!


Chinatown Interview: Interview (zh)

<p> 問:嚴先生,可以講一下你的出生日期及大陸的生活?</p>
<p>   我父親一向隨和,一個讓我們自由發揮,不反對我們玩樂器,後期半專業,負責組織策劃﹑由教練﹑隊員﹑領隊﹑後勤工作各方面的都兼顧。</p>

<p>  其中有一個入廠幾十年都未參加過一個晚會,通常因為發票有限,通常中層領導,先進生產者﹑班組長﹑勞動的模範,到工人手上已經沒有票了。我打破傳統,五一國際勞動節不發門票,凡是工人都可參加,在禮台搞個南北擂台賽,有唱歌。成功晚會視乎台上表演和台下觀眾有否溝通。台下觀眾通常不投入,但我舉辦南北擂台,雙方觀眾都可參加,同時抽獎要說明北看台的觀眾勝出,台上及台下的獎品特多。調動觀眾的積極性,使台上台下互相溝通,啦啦隊自然很落力,這是我的一些經驗。</p>
<p>   未來美國時,已有人警告我說,唐人街很污糟邋塌,來到以後親身經歷。</p>
<p>   在大陸未曾從事餐館業,別人介紹去做,因為不懂英文,在唐人餐館做。</p>



“Guo Gan Yan,” September 11 Digital Archive, accessed March 31, 2023,